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Letting Art Adorn 

Parallel principles exist between disciplines. What is true for, say, writing is often true for music. I recently subscribed to the Habit Weekly, a writing advice resource by Jonathan Rogers. This week he brought his readers to an observation of Stephen King's: "Life isn't a support-system for art. It's the other way around."

We live first - we love our families and our neighbors - we let that life inspire art - and we let our art adorn that life. Not that the craft can't be serious and time-consuming (and often must be), but if it becomes too much so it may exhaust itself and become pointless. 

That sentiment and this picture capture the genesis of a piano piece released today.

You see the shadow of a man, husband, and dad who is taking his son for a walk by neighboring fields. So much is pleasant: the openness, the accessibility, the beauty of the hillside. So much is right: this man loving his son with a simple act. But this field had been a scene of war, and to this day a shovel would find lead artifacts from that era. This man is pushing his son because a mysterious disorder has robbed the boy of most of the abilities the rest of us enjoy. 

When playing these piano pieces, all these things come to mind. We are living, literally and metaphorically, in battlescapes.

"Schoolhouse Ridge" is a solo piano piece named for a series of fields in which Stonewall Jackson based maneuvers ahead of Antietam, maneuvers which led to the largest capture of federal troops during the Civil War. Today, we walk our dogs and take our children to Schoolhouse Ridge. And it was because the dad in this picture developed a running hobby - for his son's sake - and ran the Schoolhouse Ridge trails that the idea for this piano piece formed.

It's now available for stream or download in most places. 

ITUNES / APPLE

SPOTIFY

AMAZON

YOUTUBE

 

 

Digging for Heaven 

It seems like the people who have the most heavenly stories are the one who've dug deepest into the earth. 

Corrie ten Boom lived a war, provided a hiding place, survived a concentration camp, and forgave. 

Gladys Aylward boarded a train to go through Europe to China. When it stopped at the edge of a warzone in Russia, she started walking. Both the regularity of her ordinary service to the Chinese and the spectacularity of events that arose from it qualify her story. 

Similarly, the most creative people are the ones getting their hands dirty with real stuff. The early Disney animators didn't get their inspiration from watching cartoons (there weren't any!). They had been boys in the early 20th century, and, I wager, that gave them the imaginative kindling they needed to animate their cleverness. Much more recently, Garrett Taylor tells one reason he was hired as an artist for Pixar: "To my amazement, the man that chose me for the position said he particularly liked that I had a knowledge of carpentry, and could see that understanding in my portfolio." Carpentry had been his back-up job and the only thing on his resume - but it was this physical craft that made his illustration rise above that of others. 

This all reminds me of that writing advice to live first, write next. Douglas Wilson ("love him or hate him") writes in Wordsmithy, "Live an actual life out there, a full life, the kind that will generate a surplus of stories.... Picture your writing corpus as the mouth of a great river, and all the life you have experienced as the various tributaries that feed the river." 

And, indeed, modest though they be, the projects that appear here at Vandalia River were inspired by real, regular life. This weekend is the anniversary weekend of releasing Heaven and Earth: Scripture Songs for the Old and New. These songs came about because I had kids; I was going to church with kids; I was living life with folks in church; and I was reading Scripture. I was living life, and life gave me something to write about. 

On Sep. 20 - next Friday - another bit of music will be released that was borne out of non-musical living. This track inspired the whole Battlescapes album I've been working on. Jacob runs. He runs because he likes it, but he really runs because he loves his son, and it's one of the few things they can do together. We know this town, this park, and this community all the better for his running pursuit. One day, as a service to my daughter's cross country team, he took video of a trail route on Schoolhouse Ridge, a series of fields that are part of Harpers Ferry National Historical Park. He set an early draft of a piece I was creating to the video.

Years later, remembering that video and that piece, I realized it needed to be finished and named "Schoolhouse Ridge." And it needed to be accompanied by other pieces commemorating places linked to our home and story. 

Schoolhouse Ridge. Murphy Farm. Lower Town. The Heights. Virginius Island. The Confluence. I look forward to unfolding what these places mean to me in music. 

 If you haven't yet, pre-save "Schoolhouse Ridge" on Spotify. 

If you like the style of these piano pieces so far, let me know if you'd be interested in a Battlescapes CD. If I get enough pre-orders, I'll be able to print a small batch.

What We Want Is a Christian Poet 

Brett McCracken at the Gospel Coalition shared a playlist of "Quality Christian Music." He writes, "Often accused of being derivative, sugarcoated, and samey-sounding, 'Christian music' as a genre has become such a liability that many musicians understandably avoid the label like the plague. Is some of Christian music’s poor reputation deserved? Certainly. But the case against Christian music can be simplistic and overstated. The truth is there is a lot of artistically interesting, quality Christian music being made today—it’s just not always easy to find."

I appreciate Brett's optimism and taking the time to highlight newer artists. I must say, I often hear the complaint he describes and am never satisfied with it. For one thing, our pond is too small. The discussion of "good Christian music" tends to stay within the pop music genre (that includes pop, most rock, folk, and country here). It's like arguing between vintages of the same wine (and let's not get snobby toward folks who like the cheaper years.) Christians are free to expand their horizons to all genres - and to all times available to us. We can learn to enjoy oratorios, choral hymns, loads of instrumental music, and so on and so forth.

Having said all that, I do think there is a valid reason we still desire quality pop Christian music. It's not just that we want good Christian music - we want a good Christian poet. 

Modern poetry is a thing apart from song, but there's always been a connection between the two. The poet is ancient. The Greeks had several. Homer opens the Odyssey, "Sing in me, Muse, and through me tell the story." The Hebrews had poets, most notably David. An Old English poet gives us Beowulf, in which a Scandinavian poet (scop) sings for clansmen about past victories and tragedies - to celebrate as well as warn the hearers in the hall.

We want our own poets to put our life experience in words. We want it in song so there is vent to the emotions of existence. We want it in our language so we can know it is true for us. We want the music to be familiar so it can feel relatable. 

Think of the most legendary singers and songwriters of the last forty years (Bob Dylan for one?) - they were entertainers to different degrees, but they wore a poet's mantle, too. Christians long to interface their experience of life with God's truth. Christians have sincerely experienced, in different degrees, revelation that brings warning, hope, reasons, and purposes to our lives. So there is a unique call for a Christian poet to bring all this together in song and word. 

I think this is why Andrew Peterson, Sara Groves, and Rich Mullins - to name a few - are well loved. Skillful, yes. But also sincere, eloquent, and believing. Their lyrics assure you that they too see the world with open eyes, but they've seen the Lord, too, and they reach up for him. For the Christian poet - just as it was for David the psalmist - the continuum of art is able to encompass expression of mere experience as well as overt worship of the Lord. (Brett's playlist, by the way, has artists that tend toward the latter emphasis.)

There will always be a desire for new "quality Christian artists," because there will always be new people and new experiences that call for a twist on familiar styles. There will always be a demand for sincere Christian poets to strum our mortal cords.

Let's sing and tell the Story.

Thanks to my dad for sharing the TGC article.

Becoming Vandalia River 

The Vandalia Room began as an umbrella for a number of pursuits: original music, audiobooks, and a blog. "Vandalia" refers both to home - it was once a contender as the official name of West Virginia - and the woman who bought the piano that is now in my living room.

Since beginning this platform, I've recognized that much home recording is an inefficient use of my time. There won't be more audiobooks anytime soon; and instead of testing and re-testing mic set-ups and mixing techniques I'll focus on writing - and finishing - music to record. New music will be shared under Vandalia River. Why? There are already a couple like-minded groups that use "room" in their name. I like "river" in part because it evokes a sense of natural flow. The creative output of Vandalia River flows from a domestic life. I'm not out to reach some new echelon of brilliant art. My vision is to capture the art that can be distilled from whatever life already is. I guess, in a sense, all creators do just that. But the music teacher in me wants to beat this drum so onlookers can be inspired to produce art in their own way, even if modest. This is why I write about house concerts and classical composers and recipes and how music speaks to us in our circumstances.

So pardon the dust as the site and social get reworked. Vandalia River is now on Instagram, by the way. R. Hall, as a former social media exile, still has some catching up to do, but follow along @vandaliariver!

P.S. How do you listen to music? Pandora? YouTube? Downloads? Getting ready to record some instrumental piano music, and I want to put it where you can get it. Let me know by e-mailing post @ vandaliariver.com.

Lyric Pieces from the Labyrinth 

 

Hmmmm....who is this person?

He's a birthday buddy with my sister-in-law and niece (June 15), for one thing. He became a composer. When I was a kid, I first heard his music in an extended TV commercial for a classical CD collection. It played a snippet of one of his most memorable pieces. Some time later my piano teacher dropped an arrangement of it in front of me. I squealed. "Ohhhhh, I heard this on a commercial and loved it! It's so - powerful!!"

But I never listened to his actual piano music till after one fateful day at Bierce Library. Bierce is a hulking piece of architecture in the middle of the University of Akron. It was a dated but busy place by the time I frequented its foyer in 2002. I never finished finding some new corner, study closet, or half-hidden table in that storied building. (Dad: happy Father's Day - that pun is for you.) Rumor was that somewhere in Bierce was an audio library. My piano professor wanted me to choose my own pieces to learn, so I went in search of records to inspire me.

I did find it - a smallish room filled with CDs. Beethoven sonatas....check...what is this? Lyric pieces for piano? I'll borrow that CD, too.

That CD enchanted me.

They were called lyric pieces because they were shorter song-like works that evoked a character, story, or emotion. They were steeped in the folk sound of the composer's home country. The music was as full of personality as some of its titles: "Elfin Dance," "March of the Dwarfs," "Little Bird," "Homesickness." My piano professor was delighted when I told him I wanted to learn "Wedding Day at Troldhaugen." Troldhaugen ("Troll Hill") was the name of the composer's home.

The name of the composer was Edvard Grieg.

Grieg's lyric pieces represent to me not just a set of charming music but a place where I belong. They are homey, folksy, near, and accessible and yet glittering all the same. Grieg had these words for himself: "Artists like Bach and Beethoven erected churches and temples on the heights. I only wanted...to build dwellings for men in which they might feel happy and at home."

That is my vision for the Vandalia Room. To reap the art of the commonplace - to capture the soundtracks of home - to distill the beauty of whatever life is around me - and to encourage others to do the same in their own way. (By the way - the Vandalia Room might be changing a little bit soon. More on that later, I hope.)

P.S. Troldhaugen is maintained as a museum to this day. Wouldn't you love to hear a performance in its music hall!